When I was a kid — and this is a bit hard to explain — I didn’t know that a person could grow up to be a sportswriter. Yes, of course, I was aware that sportswriters existed. I read them all the time. My first job was delivering the Cleveland Press, and when the newspaper stack arrived, the first thing I would do was tear open the paper and read the sports section. I knew the sportswriters by name. I would wait by the mailbox on Thursdays (sometimes Fridays) to meet the mail carrier who carried The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. I can still list off that Sporting News list of columnists. Joe Falls. Art Spander. Bob Verdi. Larry King, of course.
Oh, I knew what sportswriters did and idolized them for it.
But none of that changed the fact that someone like me could not BECOME a sportswriter.
My Dad worked in a factory. Our neighbors, most of them, worked in factories. Some sold furniture or drove busses or worked in construction. Nobody we knew had an exotic job like sports writing. Well, actually, my friend Jay’s Dad worked at NASA, but none of us (Jay included) knew what he did there. It seemed to have nothing to do with astronauts, and I imagined him somehow having a back-breaking job just like every other Dad I knew.*
*This is an aside, but I always wear a jacket and tie when I go to games. Every now and again people will ask me why I’m dressed up, and I’m kind of embarrassed to tell them — I dress up because my parents fondest hope for me, as I understood it, was that I would get a dress-up job, one where I would NEED to wear a jacket and tie. Of course, they had hoped I would become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an executive of some kind. Instead, they got a son who dresses up for Golden State Warriors games. It’s something.
In any case, the idea of becoming a sportswriter was far-fetched and silly and not even worth discussing. And we never did discuss it, not once. In my imagination, sportswriters were born into those job, like royalty or being a Kardashian. I mean, how else could they have gotten jobs where they WROTE ABOUT SPORTS for a living? If this was an actual possibility, well, why wasn’t every kid in America trying to become a sportswriters? I mean: To go to games, to talk to the athletes and coaches, what could possibly be better than that? Sportswriters had to be chosen by some kind of lottery system. It wasn’t even something to dream about.
Tom Sorensen was the man who made me dream.
Tom has been a sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer for almost 35 years. He just announced that he’s going to take a break for a while. I’m not sure — Tom’s not sure — if he will come back. He only wanted to say it’s been one heck of a ride.
I’ve known Tom as a hero and a mentor and a friend, but before all of that Tom made me believe that being a sportswriter was possible. I’ll always love him for that. I’m not even sure he knows that story, though I told it to him a long time ago.
My family moved to Charlotte when I was in high school, and I quickly figured out the pace and rhythm of the local newspaper. Ron Green was the poet, the longtime columnist who had lived a sportswriter’s life, who had watched Charlotte grow up, who had been there when Jack first played at the Masters, when Dean showed up at North Carolina, when a young Harmon Killebrew hammered home runs for a Charlotte minor league team. Ron’s columns were perfect little things, beautiful black and white photographs in gold frames.
Tom was the wise-ass.
Of course as a young man, I associated with Tom. He was funny, and he was flippant, and he was sarcastic, and, man, he could really write. He specialized in tough guys — the boxers, the wrestlers, the offensive linemen, the intimidating coaches. I remember he once wrote a column about what it was like when Bob Knight walked into the room. As I remember it, he said it was like when the principal walks in to a classroom being taught by a substitute teacher. I’ve always loved that description. There are a lot of great Sorensen descriptions.
But it wasn’t just reading Tom that changed my life.
No, he changed my life because one day he wrote a mocking column about how he was sick and tired of the Cleveland Browns always being on television in Charlotte. This was obviously long before the Panthers came to town (and long, long before you could watch any NFL game you wanted), and Charlotte was lost in the NFL wild. Most people in town were either Washington fans (about six hours North) or Atlanta fans (about four hours South). So those two teams were always on television.
You will notice, though, that both are NFC teams. Charlotte didn’t really have an AFC team. Cleveland became that AFC team by default. There was a good reason for this: Even now you can’t walk 20 yards in Charlotte without running into someone from Cleveland. See, there was that mass-fleeing of Cleveland — the city’s population in 1960 was 876,000, and and it is now less than half that. Those 480,000 or so people had to go somewhere, and a whole bunch of them came straight down I-77 and stopped in Charlotte.
What I didn’t know then was that The Charlotte Observer office was loaded with Clevelanders, and Tom was probably just busting their chops. But his reason for that evil column didn’t matter; I about lost my mind. I was a Cleveland kid who had come to the South largely against my will, and the one redeeming quality of Charlotte in those days was that the Browns were always on TV. Tom was ruining it.
“You should call him,” a friend of mine said.
“Nah,” I said.
“No, really you should.”
I did. I called him. It completely went against my character … I was painfully shy then and scared to death to of just about everyone and everything. I guess the possibility of losing my Browns on television pushed me over the edge. I dialed the paper, asked for Tom, and they transferred me. And he answered the phone.
That’s all I remember. He answered the phone. I don’t remember what he said or what I said or what the conversation was like. I’m sure it was typically Tom but what he said didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Tom answered the phone. He talked to me.
He was a real person.
And that changed everything for me.
So silly, right? I know, it makes absolutely no sense, but it’s like an entire world opened up. Before talking with Tom, the idea of being a sportswriter literally would not have occurred to me. Have you seen that preview for the new Kung Fu Panda movie — the Jack Black panda runs into an adult panda.
“I’m looking for my son,” the other panda says.
“I’m looking for my father,” the Jack Black panda says.
And it never occurs to either of them that they are looking for each other. That’s what sports writing was for me until I talked to Tom. Then, suddenly, it became a possibility. Heck, my new friend Tom did it, right?
Such small things can turn lives. If I had not talked to Tom Sorensen that day that I’m not sure I would have had the guts to write a letter to the sports editor of The Charlotte Observer asking for advice. And if I had not written that letter, I would not have gotten the chance to cover high school games for $20 bucks a pop. And if I not covered those high school games for $20 bucks a pop, I would not have gotten an internship at the paper, and if I had not gotten an internship I would not have been hired to be the worst agate clerk in the history of the paper. And if I had not been such a terrible agate clerk, I might not have gotten the chance to write for the paper.
And so on and so on.
In the years since, Tom has affected my life in many more conventional ways, mostly with his kindness and advice and example and, once, for making a terrible fantasy baseball trade that made my team better. He will deny the last part. But it’s true. It’s all true.